At 2134m, mist-covered Darjeeling is cool enough for butchers to hang their meat in the open all day. No one goes about in shorts and singlet and everyone’s always ready for a hot cup of tea. There is a strong Tibetan and Nepali population here making a living on the steep deforested slopes of the long ridge this sprawling hill station sits on. But initially, Darjeeling is not a pleasant sight to behold. Only small clusters of giant pine trees remain amidst the slum-like hillside dwellings, restaurants and guesthouses. Construction is haphazard and rampant with new houses mushrooming in fresh clearings and more levels being added to the existing ones. Everyone is competing for airspace since the higher you build, the better the view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. It is common to sit in a restaurant and look out into somebody's second or third level. Still despite this frantic race to out-build each other, Darjeeling has her charm locked tight in the many old buildings and old people here.
Of all the places, we decided to stay at Andy’s Guesthouse which sits exactly on the ridgeline. This means an uphill climb to wind up each day’s activity. Before we found the gentler long-cut, getting to Andy’s was like climbing the lower slopes of Bukit Timah Hill. Yes, it is that steep and punishing on the calf muscles. For 400 Rs, we got a spacious, well-lit room and an almost 360 degree view from the little roof-top terrace. Most importantly, we are as far away from the main transport artery (Hill Cart Road) as we can get, so there is peace, fresh air and quiet. The only problem is that hot water must be carefully rationed. Taking too long to bathe can leave the poor other stranded in lather. In the toilet, there is a notice telling us that washing our clothes is strictly prohibited so as to save water. But next to it is a long laundry price list.
The upper reaches of the ridge has been wisely pedestrianised and constitutes the main tourist area. Since the jeeps and vans cannot get here, porters do the work of getting the goods to their destinations. Like those on Mount K, these men and women bear most of the load on their necks with the use of a sling which is thick over the forehead but end in several strips of rope which is used to bind the load together. Carrying anything from sacks of cement, huge vegetables baskets, long planks of wood to three or four tourist’s suitcases, these human yaks trudging up the steps and alleyways are part of the Darjeeling scene. They are usually very short and perhaps will become even shorter due to daily spinal compression.
There is a good spread of eateries and the expenditure difference between an upmarket restaurant and the local hole in the wall can be about 120 Rs. Our favourite makan hovel is Kalden, a tiny but very popular 3-tabled Tibetan venture which fed us well for 53 Rs, including tea and coffee! Momos are a popular snack here. They are the Tibetan versions of our guo tie, dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables which are eaten steamed or fried. On our last day in Darjeeling, I ate one pork momo with a triangular metal piece in it. Fortunately, I was not gobbling. Thukpa or noodle soup is also a refreshing change from the usual chapattis and curry. More importantly, it was great to taste beef once again and the variety here is my favourite - extremely beefy as mutton is muttony.
We got a better idea of the Tibet-China conflict at the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre which sits on land donated by the Americans in 1959. This centre also functions as a school, orphanage, old folks home, cottage industry, showroom for products, farm and clinic. The toothless smiley old folks in their cotton beanies willingly show us how they spool cotton and weave carpets. It is a funny sight seeing a room full of old folks spinning the bicycle wheels that gather the cotton fibres into a coarse thread. These are dyed and dried on the rooftops. The carpets look very crude and amateurish compared to the Turkish ones. Besides carpet making, wood-carving and textiles also bring in the rupees for these refugees. The warmth and friendliness of these people makes us want to visit Tibet after India. They never fail to smile. A Taiwan-sponsored mobile clinic is parked in the courtyard, where rosy-cheeked children play cricket and football. There is also a computer centre with internet access. A sign on one of the doors says that they are showing Corpse Bride and Shark Tales on Valentines Day. Entry's 15 rupees and you've got to wear something red! The anti-Chinese sentiment runs high with posters and newspaper cuttings condemning and shedding light on China’s inhumane treatment of the Tibetans. Apparently, more than a million Tibetans were killed, 6000 monasteries razed and thousands of Tibetans incarcerated in Chinese prisons. The 11th Panchen Lama, a small boy and his family also ‘disappeared’ in 1995 with the Chinese government admitting that they had him in their ‘custody’ a year later. At 6 years old then, it makes him the world’s youngest political prisoner. Still I wonder how a spiritual leader of a country of 6 million is determined at such a young age. The Chinesefication of Tibet included forced abortions and an influx of Chinese into Tibet. As a result, today the Chinese outnumber the Tibetans 3 to 1. Included in the photos is ‘The Paradox of Our Age’, by the well-loved Dalai Lama who is staying in India. Traditionally, Tibetan men wear an earring on their right ear and on the left a blue stone found in Tibet. One guy who works at the Centre admits that today, they wear it because it is in fashion.
On a lighter note, Canadian rocker, Avril Lavigne is the favourite poster girl here. I guess it’s because of her heavy eye-liner, sharp features and fair skin. Some of the local girls here do look a bit like her. According to Karen, the eye-liner is supposed to ward off evil by making your eyes look bigger.
We didn’t bother with the usual tourist attractions (especially those requiring an entry fee) and spent most of our time walking ourselves breathless on the slopes of Darjeeling. It’s hardly surprising that no one cycles in this town. The labryinth of little houses are homey, quaint and unique. Because piles of rubbish that are thrown down certain sections of the slopes, the little streets are reasonably clean. The folks love their plants and make up for the lost trees with pots of colourful flowers and small plots of vegetables. There seem to be a tiny ma ma shop on every street selling vegetables, chips and sachets of shampoo. Occasionally, you’ll may come across a butcher or a fishmonger. At 2100 metres, it’s surprising to find such big fishes! A funny sign reads ‘Dressed Chicken Sold Here’. Like cruel joke, live chickens and the carcasses of their recently lost friends are placed side by side. Shawl-covered women and children walk slowly with arms around each other like best friends. Unlike the Kolkataians, they, especially the young girls, enjoy being photographed. Our 6 to 8 kilometre walks are interspersed with regular tea stops and momo breaks at tiny eating places along the way. At one small establishment, Darjeeling tea and 5 vegetable momos costed us only 15 Rs!
At the suggestive Hot Stimulating Café, we bumped into a man who after hearing that we played the guitar gave us a cassette of his band’s first English album – Dreamers on the Road. Sound exactly like us! It was playing on the café’s radio and he instructed the Nepali owners to pass it to us when we left. He did seem a little disappointed that we would not be able to attend his concert on the 19th. I do miss my guitars a bit but travelling light in India is a wise move. The middle-aged Nepali lady who could speak a little Malay told me that the early mornings are clear and I could see the mountains. Even she had enough eyeliner on to scare me away.
A sudden bout of insanity got me up at 4am the next day to catch a jeep to Tiger Hill where the views of the sunrise on the Himalayan horizon are supposed to be ‘truly spectacular’. On a clear day, four of the world’s five highest peaks are visible from here. As luck would have it, it was not a clear day for me. There were throngs of people on Tiger Hill but very few foreign tourists and strangely they were more interested in the misty sunrise on the eastern side rather than the mountain range to the west. With four layers of clothes on, I felt warm enough to be out in the open. (The alternative was to pay 40 Rs and be in the comfort of the warm viewing galley with a warm cup of tea in hand.) However, my exposed hands and face was quite numb by the time we were through and I had problems pressing the smaller buttons on my camera. It was nice simultaneously watching the moon being ‘eaten’ by western mountains and the brightening of the sky in the east. The moon went down real quick and people actually clapped when the sun emerged! It was not the perfect sunrise with the low level mist blocking the view of the horizon and the lower reaches of the mountains but at least I got a glimpse of the impressive snow peaks. By 7am, the convoy of jeeps were making their way back to Darjeeling where Karen was still sound asleep dreaming of the road ahead and whether it was humanly possible to do an 8 day trek I was thinking about in Sikkim.
Visits to several Ghompas and monasteries along the walks gave us some insight into the local religion. Some Tibetian monks can be married, have families and hold full-time jobs. They come to the temple when the need arises during festivals and religious days and they need not shave their heads. This is the culture of the private and well-restored Aloobari Ghompa where a kind man took it upon himself to show us around even though the Ghompa was officially closed. He had the keys somewhere in his ma ma shop. In one corner of the main hall was a huge prayer wheel, a 3 metre high metal drum which you are supposed to turn clockwise to receive some divine blessings. Turning it anticlockwise would probably result in major calamity. In a cabinet lay about 200 venerable-looking prayer books which looked like 200 ancient rectangular butter cakes on display. There were also statues of a 1000 hand goddess and a black demon draped in skulls and body parts. He had each foot crushing a naked man and woman. In other monasteries, we saw butter-candles and what their religious script looked like. There were posters encouraging people to become vegetarians even though a wonderful aroma of bak gua hung mysteriously in the air.
Before we head on north to Sikkim, we had to get our permits done and this involved going to the Office of the District Magistrate to fill up a form, bringing that form to the Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office to get a chop and then going back to the former to get the final permit. This would be fine if not for the fact that the two offices were more than 3 kilometres apart! And yes we walked. The only thing they did when we went to the two offices was to record our details in a book. Well, it was quite funny especially when the two clerks started debating on the correct spelling of ‘guesthouse’. One lady there was asking about a 5 year visa for India.
It seems to be getting colder especially in the evenings and the Tiger Hill chills left me with a runny nose for the past two days. The green gooey mucus that solidified in my nose overnight would be plastered all over the sink with the morning blowings. You wouldn’t believe how much mucus our noses can contain. Thanks to Karen’s cold pills, I am much better and can breathe normally again.
Finally, Darjeeling tea isn’t worth all the hype, give me a cup of strong masala anytime.